“I’ve been a teacher for a long time, but I’ve never helped kids at this level,” Jelena Soots says. She’s the City Connects Coordinator at GEO Next Generation High School in Indianapolis, Ind.
“I was drawn to City Connects because my family and I are immigrants. And in the forefront of my mind is, What would have helped me as a child? What if we had this option back then? That’s how I shifted into the mindset of thinking about what kids need based on who they are.”
Soots and her family immigrated from Croatia in the 1990s when the country was at war. They lived in a refugee camp in Germany and applied to refugee programs run by churches. They were chosen by a church in Indiana.
“At our school, we have a lot of students from different countries, so talking about my experience with them is an icebreaker,” Soots says. “And even though I’ve been here for a long time, I sometimes struggle with how to identify with American culture and how to identify with my Croatian culture, and with the mix of both.
“So I try to be understanding with our students who are in those formative years of puberty and early adulthood and have to navigate the norms they see at home and the norms they see in school and everything in the middle.”
Soots is also full of energy and optimism. One example is her no brakes strategy for finding community partners.
This fall, City Connects launched in the Beverly Public School system, and just a few months in, we’re seeing successes.
Beverly was fortunate. It already had student support teams in place. But once the pandemic hit, Beverly, like cities across the country and the world, saw students’ needs surge. Students struggled with anxiety, self confidence, and how to engage in age-appropriate ways even though the pandemic took away so many normal, in-person school days.
Faced with these challenges and given its focus on equity, Beverly wanted a way to address the needs of all its students. So school officials explored their options and went to visit the town next door, Salem, Mass., where City Connects is part of a citywide effort to improve student success.
Partnering with Salem
Beverly decided to launch City Connects in five elementary schools, its middle school, and the 10th grade in its high school.
Beverly also began a very productive civic friendship with Salem.
“Salem has been awesome,” Megan Sudak, Beverly’s City Connects Program Manager, says.
Myriam Villalobos has so much optimism and energy that she has turned chronic absenteeism into an opportunity for building a stronger school community. And last month, she was awarded a $20,000 grant from the Boston Public School system to do this work.
“I am a teacher. I am a therapist. I am not a grant writer,” Villalobos, the City Connects Coordinator at Boston’s Maurice J. Tobin School says. “I have never asked for money, so I had to learn about the process, and I was fascinated by that.”
Her approach was to think globally about the big picture – and to do so with compassion.
The Tobin had 66 students who missed more than 20 percent of school. Another 144 students missed 10 percent. Chronic absenteeism is typically defined as missing at least 10 percent of school.
“Sometimes we are very critical about why parents decide to keep their children at home. But there are many social issues there. There’s inequality, transportation, and parents who don’t speak English and need their children to be translators. There are also parents who get sick and don’t have anyone they can ask to bring their children to school.
For many students, the challenges of the pandemic have included coping with unexpected grief.
“What we’re seeing, especially since COVID-19, are a lot of families going through separations and divorce, and families who are experiencing the loss of family members,” McKenzie Bergman says. She’s the City Connects Coordinator at Blessed Trinity Catholic School in Richfield, Minn.
Blessed Trinity is a small school, with 215 students, where the loss of a loved one and even a handful of divorces can ripple through the school community.
“For so many of our families, everything is set up like a house of cards, just stacked perfectly. Pull out any one card, though, and it all falls apart. That’s what we’re seeing when families go through these changes.”
For students, loss and grief can trigger larger challenges like depression, social withdrawal, and eating disorders. Grades and attendance can drop. Some students act out. A newly single parent may need support in finding a job.
Bergman’s response as a coordinator is to help children and support families. A key first step, she says, is listening.
“Everyone’s an expert on their own lives,” Bergman explains. That’s why it’s crucial to help children find their voice as they grieve. “You really have to give students the opportunity to tell their story. You can’t help them if you don’t know what they’re experiencing.”